Review Of Ringers & Rascals, by David Ashforth
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/20/08
In the plethora of books that see print in any given year there are literally only a handful that will ever make any impact in the world. A good 99.9% will be, ultimately, wastes of time and effort. However, other than those few books that have any literary, historic, cultural, or scientific value, there are simply books that entertain- however briefly, as well as those books that are just plain interesting. Eclipse Press’s 2004 book, Ringers & Rascals, by David Ashforth, is one of those books that belongs in the final category.
Is it a book filled with sterling prose? No. Is it a book of great significance? No. But it is a book that tells tales of a side of human life that few people ever think about, and, even though it is told in a very straightforward manner, it does detail the vagaries and humor in lives of corruption in the horse racing industry. Ashforth is a senior reporter and columnist for the racing publication Racing Post, in Great Britain, and his years of experience serve him well in detailing the top cases of horse race fixing in world history. Reputedly, this book took a decade of research, and Ashforth was motivated because, ‘Skullduggery has always been a part of racing’s rich tapestry, yet relatively little has been written about it. What motivated me was curiosity, wanting to know what really happened.’
And he’s not alone. The truth is that most people prefer reading about the bad guys in any endeavor, rather than those good guys, and the star of Ringers & Rascals is doubtlessly the most prolific, successful, and colorful race fixer of all time: Peter Christian ‘Ringer’ Barrie, a man whose career in race fixing spanned several continents (America, Europe, Australia) and many decades. He was to horse ringing (the art of substituting a loser horse with a winner) what Pablo Picasso was to painting- literally, for the book details his lengthy career almost with awe, as Barrie’s specialty was making horses that were champions look like run of the mill horses so that he could clean up while betting on the ‘long shots’. The term ‘ringer’ originated in the United States after the Civil War when many thoroughbred horses were ‘parted from their papers’ of ownership, and these papers were later used for other horses with more racing value. These horses were thus said to have been ‘rung in’, and were called ‘ringers’, a term that has since been co-opted in many other sports to denote the use of a valuable player in place of a less valuable player, without others’ knowledge. What made Barrie, however, so successful was not only his unparalleled skill in painting his ringers with non-water soluble henna, but also becoming a master of disguises and changing identities himself. Barrie’s connections with mobsters also aided in his long career, for he made them millions with his insider tips. His career started in the U.K. and Australia, but then spread to Canada, America, Mexico, and Cuba.
But, while Barrie is the star of the book, Ashforth does not focus alone on him. His parade of deceptions continues with many of the more famed racing scandals into the Twenty-First Century. In the mid-Twentieth Century, techniques such as tattooing the inner lips of horses curbed ringing for a few decades until the racing industry’s mice got smarter and new mousetraps were needed. Now, as every racing horse is injected with computer chip markers, horse ringing has almost completely ceased. But, before that occurred, there were famous cases that Ashforth focuses on, such as the 1984 Fine Cotton case in Sydney, Australia, which led to the banishment of a booky named Robbie Waterhouse and a horse called Forty Two, who won a race at the Calder Race Course in place of a horse called Almost Impossible.
Other major cases get their due, as well. There was the 1971 Rule Away swindle, wherein that horse raced under three different names and won all three times- in Atlantic City, Garden State, and Suffolk Downs. He then won twice more with a fourth name at Narragansset. Then, in 1977, a horse called Lebon won a race at 57-1 odds at Belmont. That ‘win’ touched off the biggest ringer scandal in American horse racing history.
Of course, there were many other methods of cheating that the book deals with, such as out and out bribery and threats to trainers and jockeys, and horse doping- both to make , the jockey who was the worst cheat of all time was likely an Australian named Pat Sullivan, who, in the 1950s, claimed to have fixed more than three hundred of his over a thousand races. He used various methods such as sinkers- which are lead-lined aluminum horseshoes that slow a horse down, pulling a horse up so he goes slower, and many other tactics. He was banned from racing for two years.
What makes Ringers & Rascals succeed where many other books that detail crimes like this fail is that Ashforth never delves into cheap moralizing. The guys who were racing scamsters were crooks and swindlers, but they were not mass murderers. Yes, they did illegal things, but, in the grand scheme of things, their crimes pale in comparison to the hundreds of crimes committed daily in corporate America, and Ashforth realizes this, and laments the fact that computer chip injections have made horse swindling all the harder in this day and age. Then again, while lip tattooing succeeded for a few decades, it too was overcome by the swindlers, and Ashforth is not shy in hoping that they one day succeed and brings some ‘color’ back into the ‘Sport Of Kings’, for he ends his book this way:
Tattoos and brands, passports and blood testing, microchips and DNA, as well as much improved security and stewarding, have tipped the scales powerfully against ringers. Yet skullduggery’s strange appeal persists. I confess, although not as often as Barrie, that part of me hopes that today, at a racecourse somewhere….
Ringers & Rascals is not the sort of book one can nor should hold to one’s bosom for its powerful ideas nor poesy, but it is a good way to kill off an afternoon when your mind is in need of a light read. And that’s better than most books published nowadays can claim.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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